Trial of Hyde Park bomb suspect John Downey collapses due to PSNI's 'reckless' error
IRA man's lawyer argued that the defendant should not go on trial due to the political ramifications in Northern Ireland
The trial of Hyde Park bombing suspect John Downey has collapsed after a "reckless" error by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) led to him being given a false assurance that he was not wanted by British police over the IRA attack, it can now be reported.
Families of the victims of the bloody 1982 attack, in which four soldiers died, said they felt "devastatingly let down" after the prosecution announced it would not appeal against the decision to throw out the case.
Convicted IRA member Downey, 62, of County Donegal, had received a "letter of assurance" in 2007 when in fact there was an outstanding warrant against him.
Despite regularly travelling to the UK and Northern Ireland since then, in May last year he was arrested at Gatwick Airport en route to Greece and charged. He "strenuously" denied the murder of four British soldiers and causing an explosion.
The judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, threw the case out after Downey's lawyer successfully argued at the eleventh hour that the defendant should not go on trial at the Old Bailey.
At an earlier hearing, Henry Blaxland, QC, warned of the political ramifications in Northern Ireland of pursuing a trial against Downey in such circumstances, saying the false assurance he received was "not just negligent, it was downright reckless".
In his judgment, Mr Justice Sweeney said there were "very particular circumstances" of the case. The public interest in prosecution was "very significantly outweighed" by the public interest in ensuring that "executive misconduct does not disrepute" , and in "holding officials of the state to promises they have made in the full understanding of what is involved in the bargain".
The legal wrangle raises questions with the PSNI which, the court heard, knew about the UK arrest warrant for Downey but did nothing to correct the error of 2007.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott today said the force accepted "full responsibility " for the failures.
He said: "We will be referring this matter to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland".
"I wish to apologise to the families of the victims and survivors of the Hyde Park atrocity. I deeply regret these failings which should not have happened.
"We are currently carrying out a check of these cases to ensure the accuracy of information processed by the PSNI."
Members of the victims' families were in the public gallery last Friday when the judge presented his ruling at the Old Bailey. Downey, who was sitting separately in the courtroom, declined to comment.
The final ruling could not be reported until after the prosecution announced today it would not appeal against the decision.
Reacting today, relatives of the four soldiers said in a statement: "It is with great sadness and bitter disappointment that we have received the full and detailed judgment and that a trial will now not take place.
"This news has left us all feeling devastatingly let down, even more so when the monumental blunder behind this judgement lies at the feet of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
"The end result is that the opportunity for the full chain of those terrible events will never be put in the public domain for justice to be seen to be done."
They continued: "Our men signed up to serve their country in good faith, yet now it seems that that faith was not supported by those within certain areas of authority.
"The families now seek a degree of accountability for this catastrophic failure."
They said that the grieving for the fallen soldiers "never stops", adding: "The torment for the families will be ongoing, knowing that John Downey will be returning to his family and life will be normal for him."
On July 20, 1982, a car bomb left in South Carriage Drive killed the soldiers as they rode through Hyde Park in central London to the changing of the guard.
The explosion killed Roy Bright, Dennis Daly, Simon Tipper and Jeffrey Young and injured other members of the Royal Household Cavalry. Seven horses were also killed as the soldiers travelled from their barracks to Buckingham Palace. Another horse, Sefton, survived terrible injuries and became a national hero.
The investigation into the bombing led police to Downey, through fingerprints on parking tickets and a description given by witnesses of two men carrying out reconnaissance in the area before the attack.
An arrest warrant was issued, but it was decided not to seek Downey's extradition from the Irish Republic in 1989, in part due to the lack of strong evidence against him, the court was told.
Then in 2007, Downey received assurance he was not at risk of prosecution as part of a scheme run by the Northern Ireland police.
He was one of 187 On the Runs (OTRs) to seek clarification from the authorities in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Blaxland said: "Sinn Fein impresses it is impossible to overstate the importance of the assurances given to the 187 people."
Warning of the political fallout if a trial should go ahead, Mr Blaxland said: "Once the trust starts to break down the whole edifice starts to crumble."
The court heard that Downey had been heavily involved in the peace process long before the Good Friday Agreement and had even given up his oyster farm to work on it full time.
The court was told by Downey's legal team that there were other factors, aside from the clerical error, that meant Downey should not face trial.
These included the length of time - more than 30 years - since the offence, as well as the commitment in 2001 not to pursue those who might benefit from early release schemes.
However, in his judgment, Mr Sweeney only upheld the argument that the letter of assurance and the failure to correct it amounted to an abuse of process.
PSNI 'MUST REFLECT ON ERROR'
By Michael McHugh
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said police in Northern Ireland should reflect on "the serious error" following the collapse of the John Downey prosecution.
She said the Government does not support amnesties for people wanted in connection with terrorist offences.
"The PSNI will wish to reflect on lessons learned from this case and the circumstances that led to the serious error which occurred," she said.
The legal wrangle raises questions with the Police Service of Northern Ireland which, the court heard, knew about the UK arrest warrant for Downey but did nothing to correct the error of 2007.
Ms Villiers said the Government believed in upholding the rule of law.
"That is why both the Coalition parties strongly opposed the legislation introduced by the Labour Government in 2005 which would have introduced what was effectively an amnesty for so-called on-the-runs," she said.
"The Government is also clear that terrorist atrocities such as those committed at Hyde Park and Regent's Park never had any justification.
"Those responsible were unable to see that a path of violence would never succeed, and that the status of Northern Ireland will only ever be determined through democracy and consent.
"It is, though, also important to recognise how far we have come since this despicable act of terrorism over 30 years ago. Only by working together can the community in Northern Ireland achieve a more peaceful, stable and prosperous future."
Mr Downey was part of an administrative scheme for dealing with so-called on-the-runs which was set up by the previous Government.
The current government reviewed the scheme and decided that any future requests should be referred to the devolved authorities in Northern Ireland, with the Northern Ireland Office dealing only with pending cases for which requests had been received before the general election, Ms Villiers said.
She added: "The Government is looking carefully at the judgment of the court, and we are working with the police to identify whether there are other cases similar to that of Mr Downey. It is right that time is taken to consider the full implications of this judgment."
BOMB EVIDENCE QUICKLY LED TO DOWNEY
Evidence from the Hyde Park bombing of July 20 1982 quickly led police to convicted IRA member John Downey.
But the opportunity to let a jury decide on whether he was guilty or innocent of the IRA attack has eluded authorities and families of the victims.
At the time, it was not considered by the Attorney General or police to be strong enough to secure a successful extradition from the Irish Republic.
Nevertheless, a warrant for Downey was issued by Scotland Yard and remained active for three decades in case he should come into the UK of his own accord.
The evidence centred around NCP parking tickets with Downey's fingerprints on them, according to an overview of the case set out in his judgment by Mr Justice Sweeney.
Downey, 62, of County Donegal in Northern Ireland, has always strenuously denied he was involved in the bombing which killed four soldiers and seven horses, and injured 31 more people.
It was caused by a remote control improvised explosive device which contained 20-25 pounds of commercial high explosive with wire nails as shrapnel.
The bomb was hidden in the boot of a blue Morris Marina car parked in South Carriage Drive and detonated as the guard was passing en route to the changing of the guard.
The victims were Lieutenant Denis Daly, 23, Trooper Simon Tipper, 19, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young, 19, and Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Roy Bright, 36.
The Marina had been bought the week before at a car auction in Enfield by a man with an Irish accent who gave false details, according to the court document.
The prosecution case was based on the fact Downey had been convicted in 1974 of being a member of the IRA, according to the judgment.
His appearance in 1982 was allegedly consistent with photofits and artist's impressions created from three witnesses who reported two men carrying out reconnaissance in South Carriage Drive on June 30 and July 1 1982.
Furthermore, three of Downey's fingerprints were found on a ticket dispensed when the Marina was driven into an NCP car park in Portman Square, London, on July 17 1982 and surrendered when the car was driven away the following day - two days before the bombing.
And two more fingerprints were found on the ticket dispensed when the Marina was driven into the NCP car park at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, west London, at 6.39pm on Sunday July 18 1982 and driven away at 6.51am on Tuesday July 20, just four hours before the bombing, the judgment said.
Downey became a suspect when police allegedly matched his fingerprints on the Royal Garden Hotel ticket with prints taken by the Garda in the Irish Republic in July 1980.
A photograph of Downey was found from a "delicate source" and believed to match a photofit from one of the witnesses, the judgment said.
After he was arrested last year at Gatwick Airport, Downey was charged with the four murders and with causing an explosion.
Members of the victims' families had sat in the public gallery as lawyers for the prosecution and defence argued over whether a trial should go ahead.
After Mr Justice Sweeney gave his judgment, throwing out the case, Downey declined to comment to reporters in Court One at the Old Bailey.
DILEMMA OVER HANDLING OF OLD CASES
By Michael McHugh
The collapse of the case against a man accused of the 1982 Hyde Park bombing after he was falsely told that he was not wanted by British police has highlighted difficulties in addressing the legacy from Northern Ireland's conflict.
John Downey, 62, of County Donegal, received a "letter of assurance" in 2007 when in fact there was an outstanding warrant against him in the UK over the murder of four British soldiers and causing an explosion.
It shines a light on one of the most contentious unresolved issues of the 30-year troubles - what to do about terrorist suspects who are on the run from justice?
To atrocity victims whose loved ones were murdered or maimed, allowing fugitives to return home without serving a single day in prison looks like an amnesty from justice.
To others, including Sinn Fein, the toxic influence of history needs to be dealt with through a South African-style truth-telling and reconciliation commission where those who took part, in their view war combatants, can speak free from fear of prosecution.
Northern Ireland's attorney general, John Larkin QC, crystallised the debate but also prompted a furious political reaction with his intervention last year.
"More than 15 years have passed since the Belfast Agreement, there have been very few prosecutions, and every competent criminal lawyer will tell you the prospects of conviction diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each passing year, so we are in a position now where I think we have to take stock," he said.
"It strikes me that the time has come to think about putting a line, set at Good Friday 1998, with respect to prosecutions, inquests and other inquiries."
Prime Minister David Cameron said the Government had no plans to legislate on any form of amnesty and Irish Premier Enda Kenny warned it could breach international human rights norms.
But the issue of the past is arguably still the most emotive facing post-conflict Northern Ireland.
With more than 3,000 killed during the Troubles and most murders unsolved, countless bereaved continue to campaign for truth and justice. Meanwhile, thousands injured in the violence daily suffer the physical consequences.
An agreed mechanism to address the conflict legacy has proved elusive.
The most recent attempt by former US diplomat Richard Haass, who failed to broker all-party agreement in December, proposed limited immunity from prosecution for those who testified about their chequered past.
His mooted Commission For Information Retrieval would allow all forces responsible for conflict deaths, from the IRA to the British Army, to give evidence in a truth commission-style forum.
Efforts to solve the fugitives problem date back more than a decade, to British and Irish governments-chaired 2001 Weston Park political negotiations on the peace process, which initially also ended in deadlock.
The governments agreed a wide-ranging package and subsequently the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) attempted to pass legislation meaning those accused of paramilitary crimes before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement could appear before a special tribunal then be freed on licence.
Aileen Quinton, who lost her mother Alberta in the IRA's 1987 Enniskillen Poppy Day bombing in Co Fermanagh, had opposed the legislation.
"We are not looking for vengeance, we are not looking for sympathy, we are looking for justice and justice has to be the bedrock of any kind of peaceful or decent society," she said.
The plans covered up to 150 people wanted for crimes committed before 1998. Republicans had objected to the inclusion of security force members accused of wrongdoing in the scheme, with Sinn Fein branding the proposals an act of bad faith by the British Government.
The draft law was scrapped in 2006, with then-Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain telling Parliament that legislation was necessary but Sinn Fein's rejection made it unworkable.
"The Government remains of the view that this anomaly will need at some stage to be faced as part of the process of moving forward," he said.
"It is regrettable that Northern Ireland is not yet ready to do so."
All parties in Northern Ireland welcomed the bill's demise, with unionists concerned about the impact on victims of terrorism and the Police Federation objecting to including officers with terrorists in the plans.
Since 2006 powersharing between Sinn Fein and unionists has been consolidated and despite disagreements on key issues like contentious loyal order parades and the flying of British or Irish flags the institutions at Stormont are not under serious threat.
Unionist concerns about Sinn Fein's attitude to the past remain, from alleged glorification of terrorist atrocities through commemorative parades and speeches to a fear that republicans will not tell the unvarnished truth about past wrongdoing.
Sinn Fein has made clear its opposition to the campaign of violence by dissident republicans while backing people such as peace process supporter John Downey.
But in a perceived throwback to the events of Hyde Park and countless other attacks, an extremist group calling itself the IRA recently attempted to return terror to the streets of England by leaving suspected bombs at army recruiting offices.
TIMELINE: 32 YEARS FROM BOMBING TO RULING
For more than 30 years, John Downey has had the IRA bombing in Hyde Park hanging over his head - and the families of four victims denied justice.
:: May 21 1974 - John Downey, then 22, is convicted in Dublin of membership of the IRA.
:: Tuesday July 20, 1982 - IRA Hyde Park bombing. A Morris Marina car containing 20-25 pounds of explosives with wire nails as shrapnel is left in South Carriage Drive. It killed four soldiers as they rode through the park to the changing of the guard. The explosion injured other members of the Royal Household Cavalry and killed seven horses as they travelled from their barracks to Buckingham Palace. An artist's impression of a suspect is released by the police.
:: 1983 - Downey is identified as the suspect and an arrest warrant is issued over the bombing.
:: October 21 1984 - The Sunday Times publishes Downey's picture and alleges he is wanted over the bombing. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard prepares to seek his extradition largely based on fingerprint evidence on parking tickets.
:: 1985-1987 - The Sunday Times publishes three more articles repeating that Downey is wanted by police.
:: November 21 1989 - The then attorney general Sir Patrick Mayhew considers Downey's case and decides the finger print evidence is not compelling enough to seek extradition.
:: June 1991 - a review by Scotland Yard backs up the decision not to seek extradition.
:: 1993 - Scotland Yard decide: "The subject is not extraditable but is obviously arrestable should he be detained within the UK jurisdiction..."
:: August 29 1994 - the warrant for Downey's arrest is accidentally removed.
:: October 31 1994 - when the error is spotted the warrant is recirculated.
:: April 10 1998 - the historic Good Friday Agreement is signed. It provides a framework for the early release of serving prisoners.
:: From July 1998 - as part of the extended negotiations between the British government, Sinn Fein, and the Northern Ireland government, the names of 187 On The Runs (OTRs) - including Downey - can be submitted by Sinn Fein for checks whether they are wanted by authorities in Northern Ireland or in the UK.
:: 2001 - the UK makes a commitment not to pursue those who might benefit from early release schemes.
:: July 20 2007 - Downey, 62, of County Donegal, receives a "letter of assurance" that he is not wanted in Northern Ireland or the UK when in fact there is an outstanding warrant against him in the UK. The letter is sent by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) on behalf of the secretary of state for Northern Ireland and the attorney general. The letter reassures Downey that he can visit his son and grandchild in Canada. He also travels several times to the UK and Northern Ireland.
:: 2008 - a chain of emails between two PSNI officers indicates that the PSNI knew that Downey was wanted over the Hyde Park bombing by the Metropolitan Police and that this was not mentioned in the 2007 letter.
In the summer, before travelling with his wife to Canada, Downey contacts the Canadian authorities for a temporary residence permit. He says: "The reason for the above application is that I served a term of imprisonment in Portlaoise prison in the Irish Republic in 1974...I was named in some British newspapers as being responsible for the Hyde Park & Regents Park bombings in 1982, which I strenuously deny. No warrant was ever issued by the British authorities to have me extradited and I understand from contacts which have taken place between British and Sinn Fein that they, the British, have no further interest in me. I have strongly supported the peace process from the very beginning of the talks and I believe that the only way forward for all people on the island of Ireland north and south is in peaceful co-operation and mutual respect and understanding for each other..." The application is granted.
:: 2009 - Downey visits Londonderry and Belfast in his role to promote greater understanding between Republican and Loyalist ex prisoners.
:: 2010-2013 - he visits the United Kingdom seven times without incident and in 2012 attends the National Commemoration of the Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland.
:: 19 May 2013 - Downey is arrested at Gatwick Airport en route to Greece. He allegedly told police: "I am surprised that this had come up as I have travelled in and out of the UK on a number of occasions to see family and I have travelled to Canada from Dublin. When I went to Canada I contact the UK government to check it would be OK as I didn't want any problems. They said that would be fine." He is subsequently charged over the murder of four British soldiers and causing an explosion.
:: January 2014 - a trial date is listed at the Old Bailey before Mr Justice Sweeney. Instead, Downey's defence team launch an 11th hour bid for the case to be thrown out due to an "abuse of process".
:: February 2014 - Trial judge Mr Justice Sweeney throws out the case because of the PSNI error in sending the letter and not correcting the false impression it gives Downey. The final ruling was handed down on Friday February 21 but could not be reported until the prosecution had decided in discussion with the Attorney General not to appeal.
FAMILIES 'LET DOWN' BY JUDGMENT
Hyde Park bombing said they felt "devastatingly let down" after the prosecution of convicted IRA member John Downey collapsed.
The relatives of Household Cavalry soldiers Roy Bright, Anthony "Denis" Daly, Simon Tipper and Jeffrey Young said they "never ceased in their desire to see that justice be done".
They said that the grieving for the fallen soldiers "never stops", adding: "The torment for the families will be ongoing, knowing that John Downey will be returning to his family and life will be normal for him."
Here is their statement in full:
"In May 2013 the families of the victims murdered by the Irish Republican Army in Hyde Park on July 20 1982 received notification of the arrest of John Downey in connection with the bombing. The families of those so treacherously murdered whilst on duty on that fateful day have never ceased in their desire to see that justice be done.
It is with great sadness and bitter disappointment that we have received the full and detailed judgment and that a trial will now not take place. This news has left us all feeling devastatingly let down, even more so when the monumental blunder behind this judgment lies at the feet of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The end result is that the opportunity for the full chain of those terrible events will never be put in the public domain for justice to be seen to be done.
The judgment clearly sets out the core facts for all to see.
In the interest of maintaining progress of the Northern Ireland peace process (a process that began with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998) an administrative scheme was introduced to deal with the anomaly of those people still effectively 'on the run' (OTR). This unique scheme involved individuals being put through a series of stringent checks which, if proven clear, resulted in a letter being issued in the name of the Government with assurances that the recipient was not wanted, with the obvious implication that they would not be arrested or prosecuted unless new evidence came to light.
John Downey is in receipt of such a letter, and it is the existence of this letter that has resulted in this judgment.
The issuing of such a letter was due to a catastrophic failure within the PSNI - specifically those involved in Operation Rapid. There is evidence to support the fact that the PSNI were aware that Downey was wanted by the Metropolitan Police in relation to the Hyde Park bombing. However, when the PSNI were specifically asked by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) - before the issuing of the letter - whether a check had been made against the police national computer (PNC), Operation Rapid informed the NIO that such checks had been done, but failed to mention that the check in relation to Downey had shown that he was wanted by the Metropolitan Police in relation to the Hyde Park bombing.
This catastrophic failure of Operation Rapid in 2007 was compounded in 2008 when it was appreciated by Operation Rapid that the director of public prosecutions (Northern Ireland) (DPP (NI)) had not been informed in 2007 that Downey was wanted for the Hyde Park bombing, but no step was taken to put matters right.
This failure was further compounded when in 2009 Operation Rapid again appreciated that Downey was wanted for the Hyde Park bombing, but again nothing was done to put matters right.
The fact is that no sensible explanation for the various Operation Rapid failures of the PSNI has been presented. The failure to properly check the PNC was not brought to the attention of anyone outside the PSNI because had this been done, the check would have produced a positive result. Rather, on the day the letter was sent, the PSNI assured the NIO that the relevant check had been carried out with nothing to report.
Our men signed up to serve their country in good faith, yet now it seems that that faith was not supported by those within certain areas of authority. The families now seek a degree of accountability for this catastrophic failure. Two opportunities are known where the error in the issuing of this letter could have been raised; yet nothing was done. Had such an error been raised, it is recognised as being of such importance that it would immediately have required action and would not have gone uncorrected. However, on both occasions nothing was done.
With no sensible explanation from the PSNI, this must surely now raise the question have there been other errors in the issuing of other such letters, and the families urge a thorough review of what remains of the administrative scheme to avoid a repeat of what has happened here.
The grieving never stops for Lieutenant Anthony Daly, Staff Corporal (SQMC) Roy Bright, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young and Trooper Simon Tipper of The Blues and Royals, Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. The families would like to take this opportunity to pass on their sincere and grateful thanks to the Metropolitan Police for all their kindness, commitment and dedication in this investigation.
The torment for the families will be ongoing knowing that John Downey will be returning to his family and life will be normal for him. Families of the Hyde Park bombing have learnt over time to live with the consequence of the bombing but now have to learn to live with the knowledge that justice will now never be seen to be done for our lost loved ones.
May we take this opportunity to request that our privacy will now be respected in order to come to terms with this situation whilst we continue to mourn our loss."
The statement was issued by Christopher Daly and Phillipa Vaughan, the brother and sister of Anthony "Denis" Daly; Marion Bright, widow of Roy Bright; Judith Young and Vincent Young, the widow and brother of Jeffrey Young; and Louise Brown and Mark Tipper, the widow and brother of Simon Tipper.
SOLDIER NEVER RECOVERED FROM ATTACK
By Ella Pickover
A soldier who survived the Hyde Park bombing never recovered from the attack - leading to devastating consequences three decades later.
Michael Pedersen, a former sergeant in the Household Cavalry, stabbed his two children to death before turning the knife on himself just weeks after telling his doctor that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The 1982 bomb attack hit as Pedersen's unit was taking part in a changing of the guard ceremony. Four soldiers and seven horses were killed in the explosion.
Pedersen was riding Sefton - the horse that became the symbol of the struggle against the IRA after beating the odds and surviving the attack.
The horse had 34 separate wounds and needed eight hours of surgery.
The animal was subsequently awarded Horse of the Year, a prize Pedersen, who served in the army for 20 years, picked up on his behalf.
Three decades after the attack, Pedersen killed his two children - seven-year-old son, Ben, and daughter, Freya, six.
Less than a month before the killings, Pedersen told his GP that he could have been suffering from PTSD, the inquest into his and the children's deaths heard.
The bodies of the trio were found next to a Saab 900SE convertible car in a remote bridleway near Andover, Hampshire, on September 30, 2012.
Pedersen, who had been living in Chertsey, Surrey, before his death, had also struggled to come to terms with the breakdown of his marriage, the hearing was told.
His 10-year marriage to his wife Erica collapsed after a violent row at a military reunion earlier that year, the court heard.
After the incident he was served an injunction not to visit the family home.
Mrs Pedersen told the hearing that when she went back to the house in Ashford, Middlesex, following her husband's departure it looked like it had been "burgled" and her chef's knife had been taken.
It was later used in the brutal killing, the court heard.
Post-mortem examinations found the two children died from multiple stab wounds to the chest. They also both had defensive injuries to their hands and arms, the hearing was told.
Pedersen, who had worked as a lorry driver, then stabbed himself through the heart, the inquest was told.
Central Hampshire coroner Grahame Short recorded verdicts of unlawful killings of the two children and one of suicide for Pedersen.